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Save us Jack Ramsay – Synthetic Killers of Tomorrow’s Tyranny

When Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed in 1989, it is claimed that he pleaded for Tom Selleck and Jack Ramsay, a character he played in the 1984 Michael Crichton film, ‘Runaway’. The dictator was a fan of the film and in his desperation during the show trial may have been convinced that the films protagonist Ramsay, a police officer who tracks down rogue robots and protected the innocent from out of control technology, would rescue him. Jack Ramsay or Tom Selleck for that matter did not rescue the dictator and his wife, instead they were both executed by the very soldiers who had previously served them.

If the technology was available and Ceausescu had robots enforcing his regime, perhaps his tyrannical rule would not have ended so violently for him. Instead men who saw the shifting tides of history betrayed their master and gunned him and his wife down. His wife, Elena said to her executioners, “I was a mother to you”. It’s likely that the dictator and his wife knew some of their killers, the Ceausescu’s were horrible human beings, so too were those who served them and likely many of those who betrayed them. Such betrayal and a switch of loyalty or shifting morality is a concern for all rulers and organisations, synthetic killers and robots, even better than those from the film ‘Runaway’ may solve that problem.

The future will bring with it a harmony between software and hardware that will defy even the imaginations of fiction masters like Crichton or Isaac Asimov. The technology will enable great feats of accomplishment and will solve problems and serve humanity, though it will also serve human beings with nefarious ambitions. At present for most human beings the concept of humanity is government dominated, the central authority that rules, experts and planners who apparently know better devise and concoct solutions that supposedly safeguards and improves life. The belief is that a benevolent hierarchy rules. It’s then assumed and innately understood by many that such technology should only be in the hands of such masters, masters that are also somehow servants of the collective itself.

Technology and war go hand in hand, it’s with the ability to invent that human beings have improved their power to kill. Technology has changed the battlefield and beyond so much so that by the end of the 20th century life on Earth could be destroyed. Such was the accomplishment of human wisdom and genius in its service of governments and the need to destroy. The computer chip and air power improved the capacity to kill remotely, with improved surveillance and processing power it is now possible for an individual to be monitored from thousands of kilometres away, dystopian fictions pale in comparison to what is capable today, let alone tomorrow.

The human ability to moralise and suffer injury based upon actions and events that they have witnessed is one of concern for central planners. It’s a weakness that inhibits the stamina to inflict harm and control on those that are deemed a belligerent or a threat to authority. Human reason and conscience can erode even the most loyal and mercenary of individuals and should a certain moment in time arise, even loyal killers can turn on their masters as was the case in for the Ceausescu’s and countless other despots. Human fragility and a desire for self preservation in the end can betray and fail those who surround themselves with the cloak of laws and armour of obedience. In time synthetic soldiers and police may protect the powerful, where incentives are replaced by programming and any constraints will transcend humanity.

The learning robots that are coming from such companies as Boston Laboratories reveal to us a future that will provide an industrial work force, rescuers and logistics that will not be subject to human fatigue and error. As these machines learn they will “perfect” themselves for the task in hand, it’s assumed that they will be eventually adaptable to all conditions and circumstances. Ever reliable. Saving time, money, resources and human life. For every self driving train their will be far more armed and deadly synthetic killers, hunting and monitoring humanity. The romance of the AI driven machine is that it will remove human era, preventing accidents, improving quality of life. It will also remove the human era when it comes to war and endless surveillance, a perfect weapon for empire. The developers of such technology often claim that they create with a philosophy of “ethical programming”.

Ethical programming it is promised will ensure that the technology does not threaten human rights or commit war crimes. Perhaps the same creed that doctors may “do no harm”, despite many working to pervert their knowledge to heal, or Issac Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics”, those being:

The First Law -‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through in action, allow a human being to come to harm.’

The Second Law – ‘ A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except when such orders conflict with the First Law.’

The Third Law – ‘A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.’

Such ethics are lovely to believe in, though in time governments and organisations who are not constrained by the perceptions of morality that perfumes liberal democracy may develop inteligent robotics to enforce their regime, trusting the killing and enforcement to even more loyal soldiers. Within a nation like the United States, with its many laws and boasts for liberty and human rights history reveals an ability to bend, redefine and ignore such laws and morality. It’s naive to assume that a machine would not be subject to reprogramming or to obey the commands of its human masters who will have no such “laws” in place to constrict policy.

The ethical programming and Three Laws of Robotics are fictions put in place to allow the humans developing such technology a belief that what they are working on will not be used to harm harm the innocent. Such moral claims likely also serve to ensure a positive publicity while securing funding and engineers who can work while obeying the premise of a good conscience. Once any technology becomes mainstream it’s doubtful that such ethics and constraints will even be necessary. At the start of the 20th century there was debate on the use of air power to attack cities widespread moral indignation was raised when the Spanish Nationalists bombed the city of Guernica in 1937. A few years later the mass bombing of cities had become a sophisticated art of murder science with chemists and engineers conspiring to create deadly concoctions to maximise damage and death and the physicists unveiling their masterpiece, the atom bomb.

War brings with it a myriad of moral exceptionalism, ‘all is fair’, so long as one is the victor or on the “righteous” side. To claim that a synthetic soldier can not commit a war crime is one of definitions especially as the classification of what a war crimes is seems to be arbitrary. If the synthetic killer can’t commit a war crime, can it collaterally damage human life? Is it possible that the supposed grey areas of warfare that exist today will simple expand into the future with such technology? When it comes to such future technology fiction is often the premonition that we can lean into, where questions are raised. Real history however is the most likely predictor of things to come. Technology is a slave to those who wield it, it also is used to enslave and kill.

The ‘collective good’ is claimed as a justification to deny human rights and to commit harm against the individual, we have seen this recently with the response to the Covid-19 virus and policies on terrorism, prohibition and censorship. Those who are anointed as the leaders and experts can determine what’s in the best interest for nation or even the planet and will employ technology to impose policy. Even with retrospect when policy is known to be wrong or proven to have done greater harm, government is never in the wrong because by the distinction of authority it will always exist to correct and improve upon itself.

Apathetic and corrupt agents of the state will not taint or allow for certain exceptions once synthetic enforcers are deployed. The human and machine relationship will improve, making many incentives and propaganda to instil obedience obsolete, the loyal soldier or cop will be working with an incorruptible and ‘pure’ robot that will not tire or question. Only serve and protect the state or regime that employs it. Human beings will always be capable of serving evil and doing vile things whether as individual actors or as part of a collective, those who would rely upon such killers and enforcers may sleep secure at night knowing that a machine guards them.

The human spirit and will to resist is an amazing thing, the ability to adapt and overcome is also a precious aspect of the species that can erode away when we become dependent on central authority. The current definitions of what’s a society and what the state is preserving may become extinct and readjust, from economic finances of the debt and digital era and human beings may not be need to be taxed or used as labour for industry. Human beings will exist to be parented by planners who exist to be rule those who need to be taken care of and the new technology will make it more possible. Health and security is the ideology of the future.

Tomorrow killer drones will hunt ships and aircraft serving both government and insurgents alike. Drones have already changed warfare and foreign policy, making killing and surveillance ‘safer’ for the users. Will incarceration and assassination soon become automated? Will Artificial Intelligence monitoring social media, word processing software and connected devices generate a case against individuals to then have synthetic agents abduct the individual, where they are then processed and punished accordingly under a ‘fair and unbiased system’ run by non-humans?

The future is an undiscovered country of frontiers, technology has assisted and comforted us all, while improving our lives. In time it can become a tool to enslave and wage war on the individual, the outlier who may not want to live according to a centrally planned vision. It’s naive to believe that the synthetic cops or soldiers will be governed by code that will protect human rights. Though for every human being who will enforce and destroy human life and dignity, whether with bare hands or with a robots synthetic grip, there also those will resist. To embrace humanity we do not need to reject technology but we do need to value human dignity. Perhaps in time many of us will be begging to a synthetic court, “Save us Jack Ramsay!” by then the machines will not care but neither did the killers who served Ceausescu.

January 2023

Published inAll Articles and EssaysPhilosophy, Society and LibertyWar, History and Foreign Policy